Arlington, VA

Arlington County has received just over $1 million in grants from both the federal government and the state to help fight the opioid epidemic.

The Department of Justice is providing about $900,000 to the county’s Department of Human Services to assist in improving access to treatment, identifying alternatives to incarnation, and to hire two full time staff to further help those being treated for substance abuse.

Virginia is granting $110,000 that will add a contracted nurse position and help continue to train police and DHS staff on techniques to best help those in need of treatment.

The grants will also help purchase more Narcan (Naloxone) kits.

Suzanne Somerville is with the Department of Human Services and will be overseeing how the grants will be used as the Bureau Chief for Residential and Specialized Clinical Services. She says the grants will allow the department to continue to build out programs that focus on harm reduction and “pre-arrest work.”

“[That’s] partnering with police… and working with folks who are having substance use issues,” Somerville says. “Or when they first bring them into the jail, looking to see if we can divert them and send them to treatment instead of incarceration.” 

She says that a large portion of the grants are going to hiring two full-time staff — a case manager and therapist — but a chunk is also going to help with sober living options.

There are four Oxford houses in Arlington, a self-supported program that houses those in recovery. Somerville says that a portion of the grants will help residents pay for these programs.

The opioid epidemic continues to ravage Arlington County. While 2017 remains the county’s worst year for incidents involving opioids, after a downturn in 2018 and 2019, last year saw a resurgence in opioid-related overdoses. There were more opioid related deaths in 2020 than 2018 and 2019 combined.

The pandemic is likely to blame for much of the resurgence.

“There are a lot of reasons why people have relapses,” says Somerville. “A lot of it does have to do with employment. A lot of our clients… work in the service industry and a lot of them lost their jobs.”

And 2021 is looking even more tragic and deadly. Somerville says since January 21, there have been six known overdoses in Arlington County, three of which were fatal.

For many, the first step in asking for help is the hardest. So, the county is attempting to lower the barrier for that.

It has established a confidential “warm line” for folks in crisis that is staffed with peers and those in recovery themselves. The number is 571-302-0327.

“They’ve been through this and they understand what it’s like to try to quit and all of the pressure that comes with it,” says Somerville.

Starting in April, all Arlington fire stations will become “safe stations” where residents can simply walk in and those there will initiate the process of getting them help.

There are also a number of upcoming training sessions for Arlington residents to learn how to administer Narcan.

These grants will assist the county in closing gaps in service, says Somerville, and provide quicker, more complete help to residents in need at a particularly hard time for all.

“It’s our job to help you connect to treatment and help you figure out how you can do better,” she said.

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The 57-year-old Highlander Motor Inn is now closed and will be torn down to make room for a CVS store, owner Billy Bayne tells ARLnow.

The two-story motel at 3336 Wilson Blvd, near Clarendon, has been closed since December. Bayne expects demolition to begin on the building in March and the CVS to open in the fall.

This wasn’t unexpected. Plans have been in place since at least 2016 and permit applications were filed in December 2019.

Nonetheless, it has Bayne looking back fondly on the motel that his family has owned since the early 1960s.

“We have a lifetime of memories there,” says Bayne. He remembers spending time with his father at the motel, shooting baskets in the back, and going to Mario’s Pizza next door. He also remembers when local high schoolers had keg parties in the modestly-appointed rooms.

However, he says the motel shutting down and being demolished is ultimately a good thing.

It’s been increasingly hard to make money in the lodging business over the last two decades, Bayne notes, particularly with the rise of discounted rate websites and Airbnb. Plus, given Arlington business and hotel taxes, small hotels have to charge higher rates to stay afloat, says Bayne.

“[Customers] have a choice to stay at the Highlander or a Marriott for a hundred dollars,” says Bayne. “And I can’t compete against that anymore.”

Bayne says he’s leasing the land to CVS, which will continue to provide a revenue stream for him and his children. Bayne declined to provide monetary specifics about the deal, but did say it’s long-term.

In April, Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services rented out the Highlander as temporary COVID-related housing, providing a financial lifeline during an otherwise rough time for the hotel business.

The motel provided “quarantine/isolation space for low-income individuals who were living in overcrowded or congregate settings, and unable to effectively quarantine or isolate,” a department spokesperson told ARLnow this past summer.

Bayne is effusive in his praise of county officials for working with him, and the fact that they essentially kept the hotel going for another six months. While he charged Arlington a discounted rate, it helped pay the bills.

“[County] workers were all very professional and nice. The county was super,” he says.

The praise is despite years of legal wrangling with Arlington over the development of the property. The legal battles — which Bayne ultimately won after the Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the county — cost him at least $250,000, he says.

But with development finally happening, Bayne’s animosity towards local officials seems to be waning.

“Obviously, I had my differences with them but the county was very good to us,” he says.

Bayne also owns Crystal City Sports Pub and the Crystal City Restaurant gentlemen’s club, which he briefly considered renaming “National Landing Strip” after the relatively new collective term for Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard.

As of the moment, he says changing the business’s name is not on his priority list, while adding that “if Bezos wanted me to do it, I would do it.”

The local restaurateur is thinking about retirement but says the pandemic set him back “a few years.” He’s had to dig into savings and sell stocks to weather the storm and will reevaluate his options once his daughter gets through school.

Meanwhile, he’s remembering and expressing gratitude to those that have kept the motel going through the decades. This includes Nettie Harris, head of housekeeping for more than 30 years.

“She was the Highlander Motor Inn, the epitome of the place,” Bayne says. “When I think of [the motel], I think of my father and her. She’s family.”

When asked if he plans to watch the demolition of his family’s long-time business, he was noncommittal. But he will certainly share one last memory in front of the building before it comes down, commemorating the end of an era.

“I’m going to take pictures of it before it happens,” Bayne says. “And there will be one final picture before it gets torn down with me, my wife, and my kids.”

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Arlington County has been working with a pair of local hotels in an effort to keep vulnerable populations safe during the pandemic.

Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services is currently renting out the Highlander Motel (3336 Wilson Blvd) in Virginia Square, and previously rented the Days Inn along Columbia Pike, to serve as a quarantine location for people with the virus or at high risk of complications.

Both hotels offer modestly-appointed rooms that have individual HVAC units and are accessible via open air walkways. Among those housed in the hotels are low-income and homeless individuals who have nowhere else to go.

ARLnow previously reported in early April that the Highlander was being looked at as an “alternative site” for temporary COVID-related housing.

“In April 2020, Arlington rented two hotels to provide quarantine/isolation space for low-income individuals who were living in overcrowded or congregate settings, and unable to effectively quarantine or isolate,” Dept. of Human Services spokesman Kurt Larrick confirmed to ARLnow last week.

“Individuals served are COVID-19 positive, presumed positive, directly exposed, or at high risk of complications due to health conditions,” Larrick said. “To date, the quarantine/isolation hotels have served 108 individuals.”

Larrick said the Days Inn was rented through June 30, but the Highlander is still being rented by the county.

“At the quarantine/isolation hotel, there are currently 39 individuals being housed, occupying 38 rooms,” Larrick said last week. “Four of these individuals are COVID-19 positive; 5 of these individuals are presumed positive; and the remainder of the individuals (30) are at the Highlander due to their high-risk status.”

Such utilization is considered a best practice for preventing the spread of disease. Other cities and counties have similarly rented hotels for coronavirus-related uses.

The use of the hotels came to light after ARLnow received a series of tips from local residents. Some noted that the Highlander had no vacancy and was booked solid indefinitely — unusual during a pandemic that has hit the hotel industry hard. Others, who live near the hotel, noted a frequent presence of police officers and county employees.

On Friday, July 31, there was a particularly jarring scene: several police vehicles and people in full hazmat suits in the Highlander parking lot.

“There are police there currently in gas masks and hazmat suits,” said a resident who contacted ARLnow. “I live in the area and am concerned that no one has been notified of what’s going on.”

“This is a frequent occurrence,” the resident said of the police presence. “I inquired with the county about what is going on but they told me they could not give me an answer.”

Larrick and a police spokeswoman said what the resident saw on July 31 was a death investigation — one of the hotel occupants died of suspected non-COVID-related natural causes.

“At approximately 9:56 a.m. on July 31, police were dispatched to the report of a possible death,” stated an Arlington County Police Department crime report. “Upon arrival, an adult male was located deceased inside a hotel room. Cause of death will be determined by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Based on the preliminary investigation, the death is not considered suspicious.”

Larrick said that the county is grateful to the owners of the hotels — including Billy Bayne, owner of the Highlander and frequent critic of the county, who “really stepped up and helped” by providing a service that other hotel operators might have shied away from.

“The County truly appreciates how these businesses stepped up in the pandemic crisis to address an emerging community need,” Larrick said. “This space has undoubtedly helped us keep people safe and contain the spread in the community.”

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Arlington is rolling marijuana in with efforts to prevent opioid abuse, but some see the anti-weed campaign as outdated.

Nicole Merlene, a former state Senate candidate and an ARLnow columnist, noted on Twitter that Arlington is promoting a campaign called ‘NoWeedArlington.org’, which links back to a county health department page on the dangers of marijuana.

“Despite the fact that marijuana is legalized in many states, marijuana still poses many health risks including the risk for addiction,” the page says. “The surgeon general has put out a warning related to marijuana use – specifically related to the risks of marijuana use during adolescence.”

Kurt Larrick, assistant director of the Arlington Department of Human Services, said the campaign is meant specifically to prevent marijuana use among children and teenagers, and is part of a larger effort to prevent opioid abuse.

“The ad is an awareness campaign against marijuana use by youth,” Larrick said. “The information conveyed in the message is directly from the current Surgeon General’s message of the negative impact of marijuana use on the adolescent developing brain. The correlation between early marijuana use and opioid abuse later in life is a commonly known fact within prevention/substance use literature.”

Larrick said the campaign was not launched in response to the impending decriminalization of marijuana in Virginia.

The movement towards decriminalizing marijuana has also taken hold at a local level, with Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti ousting an incumbent last year with promises to stop prosecuting marijuana cases, among other reforma. Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano was elected in Fairfax with a similar platform.

“This ad has nothing to do with ‘decriminalization’ or ‘legalization’ of marijuana,” Larrick said. “The ad was developed by [Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative] and Prevention with support/approval from DHS leadership. The ad is supported by SOR (State Opioid Response) funds and approved by the grant administrator.”

Larrick said the County’s position and its partnership with other local organizations is longstanding and also addresses other underage drug abuse issues.

“Arlington County, the Department of Human Services, Arlington Public Schools, and our community partners — including the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, the Ready Coalition, and the Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative have long been on the same page when it comes to the harmful impact of marijuana on the teenage brain,” Larrick said. “We have also partnered on initiatives related to underage drinking, smoking, and vaping.”

While the legalization of marijuana is lighting up across the U.S., the impacts of marijuana use on brain development remains a topic of study.

Photo by Roberto Valdivia on Unsplash

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Among the ripple effects of COVID-19 is the psychological strain of isolation. While Arlington works to combat the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the county is also launching initiatives to address the mental impact.

“We have a lot going on in terms of mental health programs and supports as we navigate through coronavirus,” said Kurt Larrick, assistant director of Arlington’s Department of Human Services.

Larrick said coronavirus has forced the DHS to adapt to new methods of checking in and helping those in need. Therapy and case management are being provided via telehealth tools. Day programs, like Clarendon House, Arlington Weaves, and Arlington Adult Day Program, cannot meet in person so staff is checking in with clients on a daily or weekly basis, Larrick said.

“We just started to pilot a friendly caller program (staring with Meals on Wheels recipients) where we get callers to check in on individuals in the program to help combat loneliness and isolation,” Larrick said. “Since Meals on Wheels switched to weekly deliveries instead of daily deliveries, there isn’t as much interpersonal interaction for people in the program. The friendly caller program addresses this issue.”

Larrick also said DHS has also started Monday-Thursday free online meditation for clients.

For the general public, Larrick said Arlington County has put together a new webpage devoted to connecting people to mental wellness resources and self-care tips during the pandemic. That’s in addition to the county’s updated “Get Help Guide.

“At DHS we haven’t really shut down at all, instead switching to the Assistance from a Distance model to continue to serve clients,” Larrick said. “We have implemented a number of new techniques to stay connected with people and adjusted programs as needed. For people who were facing challenges before COVID — whether that’s employment, food, housing, health, anxiety, substance use, or other behavioral health issues — it’s been an even greater challenge during the pandemic.”

Larrick said people should feel free to call the Arlington Behavioral Healthcare Services Emergency Line at 703-228-5160 or the Children’s Behavioral Healthcare Outpatient Services at 703-228-1560 to seek help.

“We are working hard to support community members and encourage everyone to reach out to friends, family, loved ones, co-workers, neighbors, etc. (safely, of course) to stay connected and remind people that while they may be physically distant, they are not alone,” Larrick said. “For those who need us, we are open and ready to help.”

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There may be initial talks about planning for a limited reopening of the regional economy, but coronavirus cases are still rising in Arlington at a steady clip.

According to the latest Virginia Dept. of Health data, there are now 722 known cases of COVID-19 in Arlington, 120 hospitalizations, 24 deaths and 2,784 test results received. That’s up from 686 cases yesterday (Thursday) and 485 cases a week ago.

Statewide, the Commonwealth has 11,594 reported cases, 1,837 hospitalizations, 410 deaths and 69,015 people tested.

The number of reported outbreaks in Arlington has remained steady at 10, with half of those at long-term care facilities. Nursing homes, retirement communities and similar settings have been a major source of infections and fatalities nationwide, though states and localities have been reluctant to reveal which facilities have outbreaks.

ARLnow previously reported cases in at least 2-3 local assisted living facilities and has continued to receive tips about outbreaks, but has not been able to receive confirmation from local authorities.

An Arlington Dept. of Human Services declined another request rom ARLnow this week for more granular data, but did provide some additional information about the county health department’s response.

“A core team of Aging and Disability Services and Public Health administrative and clinical staff work collaboratively to provide routine COVID outreach to each of the Arlington long term care communities,” said DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick. “These communities include 4 nursing homes and 6 Assisted Living and 5 Independent Living Senior Residences.”

“A Public Health Nurse checks in each day (or more as needed) with the high risk COVID communities to provide guidance, education, and resource linkages,” Larrick continued. “We have developed electronic tools to closely track, monitor symptoms, and follow up accordingly across all the communities. The two DHS divisions work closely together to push out vital COVID information and resources weekly. There is also a daily PPE tracking tool to monitor the PPE needs across the communities. We have been successful in proactively supporting each community through this collaborative effort.”

Among the local assisted living facilities with confirmed outbreaks is Brookdale Arlington, in the Virginia Square neighborhood. A tipster described to ARLnow a significant outbreak in the high-rise facility that has resulted in multiple deaths.

A spokeswoman for the publicly-traded company previously confirmed multiple COVID-19 cases in the facility, but did not provide confirmation of the latest figures as of publication time.

“Brookdale’s top priority is the health and safety of our residents and associates,” the spokeswoman said previously. “We are diligently monitoring our residents and associates for signs and symptoms, and we continue to work directly with local health officials to help ensure our residents and associates have the appropriate and necessary medical support. We will continue to follow the guidance of the Arlington County Public Health Division throughout this situation.”

On Thursday, signs posted on the front door of the facility said no visitors were allowed, people in the lobby could be seen wearing personal protective equipment, and note from family members to a resident was taped to a window.

Jay Westcott contributed to this report

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(Updated at 10:55 a.m.) There are now just under 400 known coronavirus cases in Arlington.

The number of cases continued to rise over the weekend, with Saturday seeing Arlington’s steepest increase in cases — 37 — so far during the pandemic. The past two days have seen more modest increases.

The current case count in Arlington stands at 390, up from 203 a week prior, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data. Statewide, VDH is reporting 5,747 cases, 903 hospitalizations and 149 deaths, with 41,401 people tested.

VDH has also released additional local data about outbreaks and testing.

According to the state health department, 1,913 people have been tested and 35 have been hospitalized in Arlington. There have been eight reported “outbreaks” in Arlington, including:

  • 5 in long-term care facilities, like assisted living centers and nursing homes
  • 2 in congregate settings, like apartments, churches, and workplaces
  • 1 in a healthcare setting, like medical offices and fire/EMS facilities

Senior centers, assisted living facilities and nursing homes are a particular concern.

“Nearly 2,500 long-term care facilities in 36 states are battling coronavirus cases, according to data gathered by NBC News from state agencies, an explosive increase of 522 percent compared to a federal tally just 10 days ago,” NBC News reported on Friday. “The toll of these outbreaks is growing. NBC News tallied 2,246 deaths associated with long-term care facilities, based on responses from 24 states. This, too, is an undercount; about half of all states said they could not provide data on nursing home deaths, or declined to do so.”

Statewide data from VDH, sorted by age group, shows that while hospitalizations are more distributed, deaths are highly concentrated among those ages 60 and above — 91%.

In Arlington, at least 2-3 assisted living and senior living facilities have reported coronavirus cases, ARLnow hears.

A memo obtained by ARLnow dated April 5 describes someone testing positive at one of two Sunrise Senior Living facilities in Arlington.

“I’m writing to share that this morning we were notified about a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in our community,” the memo said. “We are following guidance from the CDC and local department of health in Arlington as well as closely coordinating with our corporate leadership teams to implement additional precautions in our community.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Regency Care of Arlington, in Pentagon City, also has an outbreak, according to a tipster, though that could not be immediately confirmed.

The Brookdale Senior Living community in Virginia Square, meanwhile, has a confirmed outbreak.

“Brookdale’s top priority is the health and safety of our residents and associates,” a spokeswoman told ARLnow in a statement. “We can confirm that more than one member of our Brookdale Arlington community has tested positive for COVID-19. We have informed residents, their family members, and associates of Brookdale Arlington of this matter.”

“We are diligently monitoring our residents and associates for signs and symptoms, and we continue to work directly with local health officials to help ensure our residents and associates have the appropriate and necessary medical support,” the company added. “We will continue to follow the guidance of the Arlington County Public Health Division throughout this situation.”

Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services as repeatedly declined requests from ARLnow to provide more specific information about where cases are being reported. The department issued the following statement on Friday.

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Morning Notes

Reminder: Tap Water Change Today — “The District of Columbia, Arlington County and northeastern Fairfax County will clean out their tap water network starting Monday — a safe, annual process. Service continues uninterrupted during the process, which runs from March 30 through May 4. During that time, drinking water in the may taste slightly different. But the purification process remains unchanged and the water is essentially unchanged.” [ARLnow]

Jail Takes Extra Precautions — “We have created a unit that is strictly for all new individuals that are committed to the jail. These individuals are ‘quarantined’ from the rest of the population for an initial 14 days and checked daily by our Medical Staff. With the Detention Center population being low, we were able to move inmates around, creating the safest environment for those individuals that have been remanded to our custody and for new individuals entering the facility.” [Arlington County]

Human Services from a Distance — “Arlington’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is taking steps to provide services that don’t require in-person visits in an effort to contribute to the community slowdown of the spread of COVID-19.” [Arlington County]

Post Editorial Assails Arlington Judges — “Parisa Dehghani-Tafti last fall ran for commonwealth’s attorney on a promise of criminal justice reform, and voters in Arlington County and Falls Church chose her — and that platform — over the longtime, tough-on-crime incumbent. Now her efforts to deliver on her promise of progressive justice have run into opposition from judges who have taken highly unusual — and some say inappropriate — steps to undermine her discretion as the jurisdiction’s top elected prosecutor.” [Washington Post]

Shirlington Circle Closure in Place — “The northern section of the Shirlington Circle bridge over the general purpose and express lanes on I-395 will close from 10 p.m., Sunday, March 29 until midnight, Wednesday night, April 1… Travelers driving north on the I-395 general purpose lanes will not be able to access Shirlington from Exit 6.” [Press Release]

New Cap Gets Arlington Orientation — “When trying to adjust to life in a new city, it can be nice to have a familiar face around to help you. That’s exactly what Brenden Dillon had after he was traded to the Capitals in Joel Ward… Dillon and Ward were teammates in San Jose for three seasons from 2015 to 2018. Dillon credited Ward for helping him get acclimated to Arlington, Va. and the Washington area.” [NBC Sports Washington]

Tree Advocates Worry About Fate of Big Oak — “In the latest in Arlington’s tree wars, homeowners at 5920 N. 35th St. joined with passionate volunteers from the Arlington Tree Action Group to sound alarms over the threat to a towering water oak outside their home of 28 years, which might soon be a tear-down… The owners believe it is Arlington’s tallest outside the national cemetery.” [Falls Church News-Press]

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Officials and activists are asking the county courts to make a newly-proposed mental health jail diversion program more inclusive.

Arlington and Fairfax public defenders joined several advocates during a Thursday evening meeting about the proposal, and urged county officials to broaden the mental illnesses diagnoses accepted in the program and not require plea bargains as a participation requirement.

Brad Haywood, who leads the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, shared a list of changes his office wants the county to make to the proposal before the county submits the application to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, joined him on Thursday to express concern that only some “serious mental illnesses” were considered shoe-ins for the program, which is called the Behavioral Health Docket.

Hiznay said she was worried that people with developmental disabilities (like ADD or autism) could also benefit from the court-supervised treatment plan, but would be considered “exceptions” under the current eligibility criteria.

Much of the evening focused on discussing whether the county should require participants to plead guilty to their charges before participating in the program (as is currently proposed) or allow them to follow the docket program and then have a trail (as Fairfax County does.)

“Because it requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness,” said panelist Lisa Dailey, who analyzes and advises mental illness decriminalization policies at the Treatment Advocacy Center. “So if that’s your goal you’re failing right out of the gate.”

When Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Tingle asked Fairfax Public Defender Dawn Butorac asks whether the Fairfax docket convicts participants of their charges if they fail out of the program, Butorac said Fairfax prosecutors set no such deals.

“Telling your client ‘if you fail this is what we’re going to do’ is sending the wrong message,” Butorac said.

Haywood pointed out that another benefit of nixing the pre-plea requirement was getting people into treatment fast — something not possible if the county’s tedious discovery process slows down the process.

Haywood also noted that requiring pleas to participate in the mental health service could lead innocent people to say they were guilty in order to access services. He acknowledged that was an “extreme” hypothetical but could be avoided if the county followed Fairfax County’s example of only contending with pleas after a participant finishes their docket treatment plan.

“We are much more inclusive than Arlington,” Butorac said of Fairfax’s docket, which was created after a mentally ill woman was tasered.  “When we drafted it, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.”

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Arlington and Northern Virginia are experiencing a possible outbreak of cases from a particular foodborne illness.

Dozens people in the region are suspected of having contracted a gastrointestinal illness called Cyclosporiasis, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health. The outbreak involves “two large businesses” where more than 40 people were sickened, possibly with Cyclosporiasis, as well as 15 confirmed cases of the disease, officials say.

“A food or water source of this outbreak has not yet been identified, and the investigation is ongoing,” said the state health department.

“Cyclosporiasis is an intestinal illness caused by a microscopic parasite,” the department noted in a press release today (Tuesday.) “People can become infected by consuming food or water contaminated with feces or stool that contains the parasite.”

The 15 confirmed cases of people infected with Cyclospora since mid-June compares to eight cases in Northern Virginia by this time last year.

The affected area includes Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church.

“Arlington County has… experienced an increase in cases of illness due to Cyclospora,” confirmed epidemiologist Colleen Ryan Smith of Arlington’s Department of Human Services.

“The increase in Arlington… has contributed to the increase in cases noted for Northern Virginia,” added Smith, who said that “specific counts of cases by locality [are] not possible due to patient privacy and confidentiality considerations.”

Officials said they could also not identify the “two large businesses” where dozens were sickened.

Symptoms can begin one week after exposure to the parasite, and typically include explosive diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, aching muscles, and a low-grade fever. Symptoms can last days or a month for some, but others can be a carrier of the parasite and experience no symptoms.

Those afflicted can only be diagnosed by a lab test ordered by a doctor.

Health officials have also reported 90 cases of Cyclospora in New York City since January, and over 100 cases in Massachusetts since May. In both areas, the number of cases is approximately three times the normal number officials usually see in a year, and the cause is not yet known.

Officials in all three locales say they are still investigating the cause of the outbreak. Previous outbreaks were linked to contaminated produce.

The full press release is below, after the jump.

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Some officials and residents are asking for more time to review a jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses, saying the county developed it without enough public input.

About a hundred people gathered in the County Board’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon for a meeting called after activists requested a chance to weigh in on the new criminal justice program. Attendees expressed general support for the “Behavioral Health Docket” but worried about its requirement that participants plead guilty to participate, adding that the county needed to listen to more members of the public before finalizing the program.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind is that even if the application is a post-plea docket, which is what Judge [Fran] O’Brien would like to see happen, that there’s going to be evolution,” said Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Anita Friedman in an interview. “I think that even if we start post-plea we might add pre-plea later.”

“I think the important thing is not to let perfection be the enemy of good,” she said, noting that the county has revised its other diversion program, Drug Court, many times over the last few years.

The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia must approve the county’s request to form the diversion program. DHS originally planned to apply for that approval last month before a group of activists and officials, including incoming prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said they hadn’t heard about it and had concerns.

After the meeting, officials did not confirm whether they would extend their plan to submit the application in September, or would schedule additional public meetings.

Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood was one of the officials who said he hadn’t heard about the application until very recently. On Wednesday, Haywood said he still supported for the docket but reiterated concerns about the post-plea condition.

“I really want to make sure that as many people as possible are getting into this program, and getting in as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that requiring pleas could “dramatically reduce” the number of participants and how fast they can join it.

The Behavioral Health Docket will accept participants who have pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense, or a felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and reside in Arlington, according to a program description obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. People with a history of felony convictions, sexual offenses, or have active warrants out for their arrest in other jurisdictions cannot participate, per a copy of the application ARLnow obtained after filing a FOIA request.

Participants would have to meet weekly in court as well as their probation officer, mental health clinician, per the application. Participants will also have to pass drug and alcohol screenings, take any medications prescribed, participate in activities like volunteer work or employment, and stay clear of any new arrests. Over time, participants will meet less frequently as they work towards a “graduation” where they’ll be supervised for another 90 days.

“That’s why it’s called a therapeutic docket,” said Judge O’Brien. “It’s designed to help people with mental illness and designed to help keep them on a path that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.”

She told the audience that it was imperative to move quickly because of the sheer number of people affected. Earlier that day, she said five people on her docket were clients of the county’s behavioral health services and where “chronic violators” of their parole. Recently, she said one defendant disappeared after appearing to get better and family members were concerned he was off his medications.

“All I wanted to do is try to find him before he got too far gone,” said O’Brien. “Because I didn’t have that power because he wasn’t on my docket, so I had to issue a warrant for his arrest.”

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